Chemicals in vegetables -including the ones your mother wanted you to eat but maybe you balked at them-could become powerful soldiers in the war against cancer.
Special molecules found in broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts may be transformed by microbes in your gut into cancer fighting compounds, according Dr. Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health. “These compounds, which can provide benefit by reducing inflammation, have been found to inhibit bladder, breast, colon, liver, lung, and stomach cancers in animal models, he said in a blog post. “In addition, experiments with animals and cells grown in the lab have shown that these compounds protect DNA from damage, inactivate carcinogens, and trigger the death of sick cells. But you need your microbes to make that possible.”
Elizabeth D. Sattely, a professor of chemical engineering at Stanford, is leading the way in studying how the vegetables may lead to specific medical treatments.
“Elizabeth Sattely, winner of a 2013 NIH Director’s New Innovator Award….. is now busy learning more about how our bodies process the nutrients in the vegetables we consume,” according to Collins. “In particular, she wants to identify the species of microbes responsible for transforming each type of plant nutrient into beneficial health-promoting molecules, and then trace the chemical reactions involved.”
Sattely also worked on this research area with a grant from the Damon Runyon Foundation. “Nature’s ingenuity in drug design is what inspired me to study how plants themselves act as synthetic chemists, and how plant products can be used to treat and prevent cancer,” she said on the Runyon site. “In order to use these compounds against cancer, we have to better understand what’s going on in molecular detail. Once we do, we’ll have a new way to approach cancer prevention and treatment based on diet and plant products.”
Collins describes how Sattely is conducting her research:
She “plans to test a panel of common gut bacteria in the lab to see if they activate the health-promoting properties of the natural chemicals found in various vegetables. To do this, she will cultivate each bacterial species in the presence of plant-derived nutrients and then use an analytical chemistry technique called high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) mass spectrometry to determine if the bacterium has chemically transformed the plant-derived nutrient. After identifying the critical microbial species, she will use animal models to test how each species unlocks dietary plant nutrients.
Figuring out which microbes are key to generating nutrients that lower the risk of disease could help us identify individuals who may benefit from more of these microbes. If that pans out, a preventive care visit to the doctor might someday include a prescription for an extra dose of microbes, along with recommendations on diet and exercise.
Sattely even envisions the day when certain foods, such as yogurt, might be precisely engineered to contain certain communities of microbes—each tailored to helping a particular individual reap the most health rewards from a particular diet. Just imagine a future in which drinking a yogurt smoothie could help you get the biggest bang out of your dinner veggies!”
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